This is a book review.
Subtitled ‘Dien Bien Phu and the French defeat in Vietnam’, this hugely researched and detailed book covers a war and battle that many young people will know little or nothing about. A pity, since those who know nothing of the past are doomed to repeat mistakes and this harrowing book incidentally describes how the USA became embroiled in its own Vietnam war and also lost.
Indochina had been a French colony until the 2nd World War, when the Japanese Imperial Army invaded Vietnam. After the war, the defeated and demoralized French were given permission by the US/UK victors to reclaim Indochina. The war had however awakened rebellion in colonial peoples and a Vietnam nationalist movement began resistance. The Vietminh nationalist rebellion was soon infiltrated and taken over by Ho Chi Minh, a dedicated Communist intellectual with a Stalinist history. Together with Communist General Vo Nguyen Giap, Ho Chi Minh led a guerilla war from bases inside Communist Chinese territory. Minh, using techniques borrowed from Mao Tse Tung, combining terror with promises of land reform gradually dominated the countryside of northern Vietnam and also threatened the French control of neighboring Laos.
The French Government in Paris was divided and weak with a large Communist/Socialist presence and whilst not wanting to lose an Empire was nevertheless unwilling to abandon Indochina. The French military in Vietnam always starved of resources and political direction from Paris attempted to draw Giap’s guerrilla force into a direct confrontation, believing that air superiority and French military skills would win. A valley near the border with Laos was turned into a fortress with 10,000 French-led troops and artillery. However, the Communist victory in neighboring China enabled Giap to acquire the necessary heavy weapons and using terror he was able to put together a vast army of porters and troops. The French fortress became a trap for the troops within, and for those subsequently parachuted in as replacements for the dead.
Soon the air support was minimal and some 15,000 very brave soldiers were sacrificed by lack of supplies and political indifference. Many of the Paras and Legionaires fought to the death in horrendous circumstances before the ‘fortress’ was overun by Giap’s masses. Few survived when captured. As Windrow reveals, a little more support and determination from French politicians and top brass could have produced a very different outcome, for Giap’s losses were staggering – probably as many as 100,000 casualties.
The lessons for us are clear. When fighting an opponent who has no compunction about the losses of his own forces and who is driven by a revolutionary doctrine, wars must be fought with every means available. Western politicians have little stomach for a war that drags on and Western nations are infested with defeatists, pleasure-seekers and enemy-lovers. Unless the ‘War Party’ and its leaders are prepared to motivate the civilian population day in and day out, the troops at the sharp end are eventually sacrificed.
In the end, the US trod the same disastrous path as its French predecessor in Vietnam and surrendered. The cost of defeat was millions of our Indo-Chinese allies and neutral innocents killed, tortured and starved a newly invigorated Fifth column at home and an emboldened set of new enemies around the world.